During a post war period, Col. James Withers Sloss not only promoted the development of Southern rail, but became one of the chief proponents of Alabama’s postwar industrial development.
In 1871 he struck a deal with the L&N Railroad to complete a 67-mile gap of the South and North Railroad between Birmingham and Decatur. Ultimately reaching the Gulf of Mexico, the L&N invested more than $30 million in furnaces, mines, wharves, steamship lines and other Alabama operations.
In the early 1880s, with the backing of Henry DeBardeleben, Sloss founded the Sloss Furnace Company, and two years later ‘blew-in’ the second blast furnace in Birmingham. Called City Furnaces, the plant was located at the eastern edge of downtown, at the intersection of two major railroads.
After its first year of operations, the furnace had sold 24,000 tons of iron. At the 1883 Louisville Exposition, the company won a bronze medal for ‘best pig iron.’
Sloss received National Historic Landmark designation in 1981 and opened its gates in September 1983, as a museum of the City of Birmingham. Its collection consists of two 400-ton blast furnaces and some forty other buildings.
Nothing remains of the original furnace complex. The oldest building on the site dates from 1902 and houses the eight steam-driven “blowing-engines” used to provide air for combustion in the furnaces. The engines themselves date from the period 1900-1902 and are a unique and important collection—engines such as these powered America’s Industrial Revolution. The boilers, installed in 1906 and 1914, produced steam for the site until it closed in 1970.
Sloss is currently the only twentieth-century blast furnace in the U.S. being preserved and interpreted as an historic industrial site. The dramatic scale and complexity of the plant’s industrial structure, machines and tools make the Sloss collection a unique contribution to the interpretation of twentieth-century ironmaking technology and presents a remarkable perspective on the era when America grew to world industrial dominance. At the same time, Sloss is an important reminder of the hopes and struggles of the people who worked in the industries that made some men wealthy, and Birmingham the “Magic City.